Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, by John Tierney, reviewing Drunk by Edward Slingerland.

Why do we keep drinking? “Humans are the only species that deliberately, systematically, and regularly gets drunk,” he writes. “The rarity of this behavior is not surprising, given its costs.”

The downsides of alcohol have always been obvious: impaired motor skills, wretched decision-making, excruciating headaches, and assorted long-term damage to body and soul. Logically, a society of teetotalers ought to be so much more productive that it would long ago have conquered its drunken neighbors and eventually the rest of the planet.

Yet from the ancient world until today, from the wine sipped at Greek philosophers’ symposia to the champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, the richest and most dynamic societies have given alcohol a central role in their cultures. …

Our ancestors could have turned grain into dense non-alcoholic porridge, he points out, and they could have gotten clean drinking water simply by boiling it. Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years and have long had cultural norms against drinking untreated water. “And yet they still have booze,” Slingerland writes. “Oceans of it. From ancient Shang times (1600 to 1046 BCE) to the present, alcohol has dominated ritual and social gatherings in the Chinese cultural sphere as much as, if not more than, anywhere else in the world.”

Slingerland says that drinking poses the same kind of evolutionary puzzle as the persistence of religion, another cultural tradition without an obvious material payoff. The labor and resources devoted to building a temple or cathedral for elaborate ceremonies would produce more tangible benefits if spent growing food or erecting forts. But drinking, like religion, has survived around the world because of the intangible social benefits. …

“Far from being an evolutionary mistake,” Slingerland concludes, “chemical intoxication helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates to cooperate with strangers. The desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We could not have civilization without intoxication.”

Even before the age of agriculture, hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago were apparently fermenting grains to be drunk at large ritual gatherings, and the farmers in ancient Sumer devoted almost half of overall grain production to making beer. The most striking artifacts in Iron Age tombs were enormous drinking vessels, and when Europeans settled the New World, their most valuable possessions were copper stills, worth more than their weight in gold.

As today’s scientists have shown, alcohol facilitates social bonding by stimulation of endorphins and serotonin in the brain and by numbing activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), that locus of rational thinking and self-control. … Alcohol has been credited for so long with spurring out-of-the-box thinking. Ancient Chinese published entire series of poems under the rubric, “Written While Drunk”; the Greeks celebrated the creative inspiration of Dionysius; Silicon Valley computer programmers claim that difficult coding problems are best solved by maintaining a blood-alcohol content known as the Ballmer Peak, in honor of Steve Ballmer, the former head of Microsoft. …

When your prefrontal cortex has been subdued by alcohol, it’s much harder to hide emotions and deceive others, which makes alcohol a quick and convenient way to build trust with strangers and enemies.

Ancient Chinese emperors, medieval Vikings, and modern business executives have all insisted on conducting crucial negotiations under the influence of alcohol because it’s a form of mutual PFC disarmament. The Romans had it right: In vino veritas.